At the start of Duke Ellington’s album, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: A Suite in Eight Parts, Ellington himself speaks for a couple of minutes about the whole world “going Oriental.” Apparently, Marshall McLuhan said something to that effect (read full incomprehensible statement here) and while McLuhan had some good points buried in his “going Oriental” statement (mainly because he threw every idea he had about Indochina at the wall and by happenstance, some of it stuck) none of it really matters to the music that follows. Still, Ellington delivers his monologue sincerely and intones that he and his band mates have, in their travels, “noticed this to be true” (that everyone is going Oriental, that is – were The Vapors inspired by this too? Do we have McLuhan to blame for Turning Japanese?). Ellington’s enunciation is so precise and eloquent I don’t even care what he’s says, I just like listening to how he says it. He speaks as if he’s teaching someone how to pronounce the words properly in English and the result is, in it’s own way, a kind of Ellington a capella lead-in.
I started going to the movies in the seventies and Steve McQueen was one of the first stars I got to know in current releases. When I saw his last film in the theatre, The Hunter, on opening weekend no less, so excited was I to see it, I felt I knew him well. I didn’t. Even though I loved movies like The Blob, The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon and, yes, The Hunter, mediocre as it may be, I didn’t fully understand Steve McQueen as an actor. I liked him and his movies but never felt he was doing the job I thought others were doing when it came to big screen acting. I certainly didn’t think he was bad, I just never gave him much thought as an actor overall. But then, very recently in fact, I watched The Towering Inferno for the first time since childhood. It was a revelation.
On March 8, 1939 J.R.R. Tolkien presented what is now considered a pivotal lecture on mythology at The University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was titled “On Fairy- Stories” and it distinguished the mythology of the Fairy Story from that of Science Fiction and Dragon or Animal Tales as taking place in an entirely separate environment from that of this world. So Arthur and Gulliver and Grendel may provide fantastical tales but they are tied to a time and a place recognizable and regionally specific. Middle-Earth and Narnia on the other hand are their own worlds even if they do employ distinctly Anglo elements.
I watched The Deer Hunter again recently for the first time in over 25 years. My memory of the film was shaky but I did have a strong recollection of not much caring for it the first two times around (having seen it twice in its entirety by the mid-eighties). I also recalled the controversy surrounding it and wondered if the recollection of any of that might be peppering my memory. I decided to give it another look, 25 years later, to see what it would feel like, decades removed from any controversy over the content of the film or the war in Vietnam itself. The experience was an interesting one, if not least of all for the fact that it has much to admire within its frames and much to deride. Suffice it to say, The Deer Hunter makes for a very conflicted viewing experience, giving the viewer plenty of time to process information about its characters but giving up precious few secrets about them on which to base that processing.
Oscar Peterson’s career as a jazz pianist was always a bit tricky. Unlike a Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock or Victor Feldman, who could control a set through steady use of block chords and minimal melodic adornment, Peterson was all about flourishes. His style was such that the left hand was of only nominal use while the right hand created intricate melodic magic. Which is all to say, Peterson worked best as a front man, not an accompanist. And when accompanying him, best to keep it simple. Too much counter melody, too intricate a bass line and the whole thing could quickly become an incoherent mess. Perhaps that’s why Peterson’s foray into orchestral jazz turned out so well.
Here’s the requirements for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as taken from the Wikipedia entry on the organization:
Membership in the Academy is by invitation only. Invitation comes from the Board of Governors. Membership eligibility may be achieved by earning a competitive Oscar nomination, or two existing members may sponsor a candidate from the same branch to which the candidate seeks admission.
The majority of members in the Academy, as you may expect, comes from nominations. Go ahead and look up the nominations, from the very first Oscars up to now, anywhere on the Oscars own website or by category on Wikipedia. Here’s one: Best Cinematography. Go ahead and look through the nominees. Tell me when you get to the female name. Oh wait, you won’t. From the Wikipedia page on this Cinematography award: “No woman has ever been nominated for an award on this category, this makes it the only category in the Academy Award’s history where no female contender has ever been nominated.” With the exception of the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and the one for Best Costume Design, the overwhelming majority of all nominees have been men. For most of the Academy’s history, that’s meant white men.
The Academy currently has upwards of 94% white membership and 76% male membership. The problem of people of color not being nominated and female-centric movies like Carol being snubbed isn’t going away soon unless the Academy changes the membership rules, perhaps by opening membership up far beyond just nominees and invitations by other members, perhaps to all working union members. And the unions have their own problem that needs to be addressed: Women and people of color are woefully under-represented in the editing, directing, photography, and other film-making fields of pursuit. I don’t have the solution but I do know the problem isn’t going away any time soon because each year another crop of predominantly white, predominantly male nominees gets added to the membership rolls, self-perpetuating the very thing we’re trying to change.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, I, Dalio or The Rules of the Game, the short subject about actor Marcel Dalio:
[director Mark] Rappaport takes us on a fictional tour through an actor’s career, albeit one supported by a great deal of research and careful film-watching, that proposes some enlightening ways of reinventing how we watch movies, teaching and hugely entertaining us at the same time.
There have been more than a few incidents in which the integrity of the profession of film criticism has been called into question. Of course, this is the kind of thing that, almost always, pleases anyone unlucky enough to be in that lowly profession, myself, of course, included. Being told one is a jealous, raging, comic book movie hating, bribe taking, all-around jackass is so hilariously off base that one cannot help but be flattered that anyone could think a film critic had that much power or personality as to attract that kind of temptation from those with the goods in the first place. Call me a drunkard or a terminal defeatist and you’re inching a lot closer to the truth. But back to the question addressed in the headline of this piece, or should I say, “to the question” since I have not yet addressed it, who do people think critics are anyway?
I wasn’t alive when the movie theater pictured above was showing Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharoahs in 1955 but it still looks familiar. That’s because the architectural look of cinemas in the fifties carried through well into the seventies and eighties. Maybe I wasn’t around in 1955 but I was around still visiting those old fifties cinemas well into the nineties before they were forced to make way for the megaplexes that replaced them.